LINA WERTMÜLLER FOR SEVEN BEAUTIES
The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)
JOHN G. AVILDSEN for Rocky
Ingmar Bergman for Face to Face
Sidney Lumet for Network
Alan J. Pakula for All the President’s Men
(SPOILER ALERT, just because I don’t think I could meaningfully talk about the film without specifically diving into the plot and its outcome)
It seems like a disservice to women as directors to say what kind of films I would or wouldn’t expect them to make. That said, however, I could hardly have been more surprised by the first film to earn woman a Best Director nomination. Lina Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties (Pasqualino Settebellezze in its original Italian), a grim picaresque set during Italy’s fascist regime, is a bold entry in the darkest and most daring of 1970s art house filmmaking. The film follows Pasqualino “Seven Beauties” (Giancarlo Giannini), jumping back and forth between the horrific depths of his wartime ordeal in a Nazi concentration camp and his cartoonishly macabre escapades in prewar fascist Italy. Wertmüller’s contrast of these two tones is so drastic that I can’t find a single image for this post that could capture both. Roger Ebert posited that this film was Wertmüller’s experiment in the “ultimate black comedy,” but I think that she structures the film as an anticomedy, exposing and obliterating his character’s sick mentality in the bleak furnace of the concentration camp.
Chronologically, Pasqualino begins as a preening caricature of masculinity, arrested and institutionalized for dismembering a pimp who took one of his titular (and ironically named) sisters under his employ. Wertmüller makes Pasqualino a buffoon, but a dangerously remorseless and resourceful one, welcoming notoriety as “The Monster of Naples” and jauntily dancing through Mussolini’s mad society like Alex in A Clockwork Orange. His knack for survival takes on a different significance, however, when he arrives at the concentration camp. Wertmuller introduces the mounds of ashen bodies to the tune of Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries”, three years before Coppola’s dramatic usage of the piece in Apocalypse Now. Pasqualino is suddenly playing for keeps with the German exterminators, who casually pick off prisoners with machine guns as they traverse a central courtyard. In the briefest of moments, Pasqualino comprehends the hopelessness of the prisoners’ plight: “The Jews, who were supposed to be so smart, the brave Russians who began the revolution…they’re not rebelling.” A moment later, his brow furrows, his glance lowers and he reverts to his characteristically callous self-interest: “My rotten luck, getting into this shitpile.”
That same self-interest becomes his saving grace in this hellhole. “I just can’t die like this,” he tells his comrade Francesco as the camera zooms in on the bodies littering the floor while two prisoners, at the bidding of their masters, play a waltz on violins. “I’ll find a way to get out of here,” he vows, immediately beginning to formulate an angle on the female warden who coolly oversees the massacre. He does survive, first by shamelessly flirting his way into her chambers, then by abasing himself in sex scenes that perversely mingle The Night Porter with Vertigo (the warden’s obese, impassive face is bathed in a sickening green light), and ultimately by devolving into another of her instruments of horror, just like the fiddling inmates. In a way, this feels like a rejoinder to later Best Director nominee Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful (La vita e bella)—both characters turn the concentration camp into a game and thus a winnable scenario. However, this film poses survival as a much more dearly won trophy. Wertmuller cuts directly from Pasqualino’s commission of a soul-shattering act of violence, at the behest of his mistress, to his return to the vivid warmth of his family home after the war, where his loving mother reassures him that “all that is in the past.” Pasqualino is left staring at his own reflection in a mirror, confronting himself for the first time, when the movie ends.
Wertmüller joined 1976’s impressive list Best Director nominees alongside Ingmar Bergman, another European auteur, both at the expense of two young New Hollywood talents with Best Picture nominees: Hal Ashby (Bound for Glory) and Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver). The latter has already become one of the most bemoaned snubs in Oscar history, though I tend to see it as incredible in the first place that Taxi Driver managed a BP nomination. Unlike Bergman, who I feel got nominated for one of his most self-parodic films, Wertmüller earned her nomination through and through. My vote would still go to Sidney Lumet for his elegant shift from gritty realism to slick commerciality over the course of Network, but this is a nomination that showcases the best of the Academy’s adventurous spirit in the 1970s.